Quick, off the top of your head: who was the last player not named Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to win the Ballon d’Or? It has literally been a decade, for starters. It’s a period of shared dominance so lengthy that the award itself has changed structure and name twice within that time, and yes, it is a truly enviable time to be watching soccer with these two creating magic week after week.
No matter if you didn’t come up with the answer quickly; the dichotomy of these two stars, whose orbits encapsulate seemingly the entire history of the game they have perfected in wholly contrasting styles, is so clear and sustained that you’d be forgiven for thinking the game hardly existed before them. But once upon a time, a Brazilian with flowing locks and a million-real smile was the best player in the world, sporting a combination of skill and native moxie that catapulted him to superstardom. This morning, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known as Kaka and as the answer to that question until further notice, announced his retirement from soccer.
It goes without saying that 2007 was a drastically different time (as was 2016, 2000, 1975, 1641, etc.). At the time, soccer, especially, seemed on the verge of a shift, having just witnessed the embarrassing exit of one of its legends on the game’s biggest stage following a headbutt that immortalized Marco Materazzi. Recently-retired Pep Guardiola was busy putting in requisite time as the manager of Barcelona’s B team, a year before he began inverting the pyramid with the big club. Jose Mourinho was busy wearing out his first welcome at Chelsea.
That year’s Ballon d’Or vote heralded the arrival of two young stars – the very two that would seize the world’s attention and have refused to relinquish it since – but the victor was a playmaking midfielder, a spine-tingling presence who could change a game with a free kick, outlet pass or by dribbling his way out of a phonebooth of defenders. Kaka was the best player on that year’s UEFA Champions League-winning Milan side, routinely navigating the opaque European midfields which players like Xavi, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso were in the process of revolutionizing.
A little-played member of Brazil’s last World Cup-winning team in 2002 as a 20-year-old, Kaka has had his finger to the pulse of the shifts in soccer’s landscape for most of his career. He wasn’t a scoring machine in the vein of his countrymate Ronaldo, nor did he put on the quixotic displays of footballing excellence which Ronaldinho made routine. He didn’t hold-and-pass-and-hold-and-hold-and-survey-and-perhaps-have-some-tea-and-hold like Xavi. But Kaka only needed a moment with the ball and a sliver of an opening to make his difference.
There was something magical about the way he anticipated movement – of his defender, of his teammates, of the guy selling beverages in a generic La Liga-sponsored cap at the top of the Santiago Bernabeu. He would spot a rushing Pippo Inzaghi, or see Andrea Pirlo break from his mark, and the ball would arrive at their feet, right on time.
When he wanted to, of course, he could take up the reins himself. My favorite moment of Kaka’s, one that made me a believer, occurred in an international friendly between Brazil and Argentina on September 3, 2006, the first international game ever played at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. Kaka, stealing the ball from a lion’s-maned, teenaged Messi, rushes forth, cutting the field precisely in half while beating Messi and others on the run. He pushes the ball just far enough on each touch, his beloved recoiling perfectly like the proverbial yo-yo rolling back to his palm. He then cuts to the right, just so, drawing Roberto Abbondanzieri into a compromising position and coolly placing the ball in the net, like pushing a canoe away from the dock.
I also remember being in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, watching as he received a rather inexplicable second yellow card, yielding a red and forcing his exit, in a World Cup match against Ivory Coast in 2010. He walked off with a smile on his face, unwittingly becoming a meme and contributing to his own, considerably prolific Internet aura.
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Once, he was the world’s second-most-expensive transfer, moving from his beloved Milan to Real Madrid as a would-be Galatico alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. That never quite panned out during his time in Spain, and he slunk back to Italy, and then to the MLS Retirement Community For Ex-European Greats, a shell of himself. Injuries didn’t get the best of him – we did, in 2007 – but they reduced his potential to a chorus of “What if”s that, while not necessarily fair given his considerable output on the field, nevertheless inspires wonder.
When he did play, Kaka was spellbinding, never quitting on a play and always lurking. When he struck, the opponents felt it, as though a colony of scorpions had been unleashed on the field. For an all-too-brief moment, he was the best player in the world’s most popular sport. No one can outrun that.